JOE MCPHEE

Mister Peabody Goes To Baltimore
Recorded 005

JACK WRIGHT/BOB FALESCH

Clang

ZeroEggzie Ox-2bdf

Synthesis has characterized improvised music over the past couple of years, as new media has finally caught up with its true reach. Unlike multinational corporations that use convergence and globalization as code words for ensuring their products are forced upon the masses in the strip malls of the entire world, improv actually is a global phenomenon.

Today, the growth of the Internet plus the ability to create less expensive CDs has allowed the isolated pockets of like-minded performers to get in contact with one another and their listeners. Audiences may still be tiny by pop music standards, but players and venues now have an easier time communicating with one another. Most importantly, with the creation of many improv festivals in North America and Europe, musicians can have something resembling a career, if they’re willing to always be on the road and to sell their CDs from the stand.

Two of the front-line soldiers who are finally reaping some rewards for their decades-long perseverance are saxophonist Jack Wright, 59, of Boulder, Colo., and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, 62, who is as well-known as one can be in this genre.

McPhee, on pocket trumpet, alto and tenor saxophone is the featured performer on all four tracks of MISTER PEABODY, recorded live at Baltimore’s High Zero Festival in September 2000. The first and longest — more than 33½ minute — is a meeting between him and Wright on alto and tenor saxophone, seconded by the electronics of Ian Nagoski. Playing his reeds plus piano, a couple of months later, Wright recorded several sessions in duo with Chicago-based metaPianist Bob Falesch both in his hometown and Falesch’s. The crisp, clean results are found on CLANG.

Wright followed a meandering pathway to free improv, as did McPhee. The pride of Poughkeepsie honed his appreciation for John Coltrane and Albert Ayler while in American army bands, then gradually shifted his emphasis from Black nationalist-tinged free jazz to pure improv while laboring for 18 years in the mailroom of a nearby steel plant. Initially another Coltrane follower, Wright, abandoned music and his middle class position as a history teacher to devote himself to revolutionary Marxism for a time in the 1960s. When existing society showed no inclination to be overthrown, he re-embraced music, eventually devoting himself exclusively to free improv.

Economy of scale is another favorable attribute of this music: A solo concert can be just as legitimate as a group improvisation. In Baltimore, for instance, McPhee created an affecting performance on muted pocket trumpet that literally defined homelessness, as it was recorded on that city’s Howard Street Bridge with the whiz of moving traffic providing the backdrop.

Improv also thrives on collaboration as these two disks aptly demonstrate. On two shorter tracks recorded in Baltimore, McPhee plies his trade with Boston theremin maestro James Coleman and locals Jerry Lim on one, and percussionist Sean Meehan plus Michael Johnsen’s self-built and conventional instruments on the other.

Coleman’s spacey whooshes and crackles add a warm aural glow to the proceedings as Lim worries and taunts his strings, making the most of electricity, and at one point even conjures up dobro-like tones. Uncharacteristically aggressive on tenor saxophone here, McPhee honks and hoots, goosing the performance until the theremin begins trilling and bleeping as the saxophonist spits out more yelps and wails. When Coleman starts playing a coda that’s all soft wiggles and buzzes, McPhee produces a dissonant, room-filling tone of his own.

Highflying trumpet cadenzas and vocalized honks from the alto saxophone serve McPhee in good stead on the other meeting. Here he faces the scratches and screams of Johnsen’s invented electronics and the chirps of his musical saw (!). Meanwhile percussionist Meehan stays pretty much in the background except for the occasional snare tickle or rim shot. Literally vocalizing through his sax after exhibiting a command of multiphonics, leavened by a few honest-to-goodness honks and buzzes, McPhee gets still louder when it’s apparent that he’s up against the clamor of electronics that almost conquers the ear canal. Holding a pulsating blue note until the fade, however, the saxist manages to create a melody amidst the cacophony.

Dealing with the Wright stuff calls for a different strategy, however, so McPhee sticks to brass smears as the saxman produces a steady, multi-colored noise of hiss, key pops and throat glossolalia. A vocabulary of tongue slaps, jungle moans, guttural baritone-like tones, reed squeaks and elongated blats also issue from Wright’s horn. Yet after a period of appearing to be tearing the instrument apart with tempering buzzes and shrieks McPhee counters with the cleanest of clear brass tones —- trumpet was his first instrument after all.

Finally as Nagoski’s sound force grows louder and oscillates up the scale, providing an all-encompassing electronic blanket, both horns intertwine. Almost instinctively ceding alternate clefs to one another as they duet, there are times when the two mouth instruments almost seem to be one.

Melding into one musician also almost happens on a single track on CLANG where Falesch and Wright both play quartertone regular piano. Each follows sweeping arpeggios with metallic string stretches. On the other tunes though, they merely complement one another on their respective instruments. Like Wright’s story, the keyboardist’s musical history is as unique as his axe. After a 20-year career as an electrical engineer, Falesch finally began performing music on laptop computer-based systems in 1997, then turned to keyboard in 1999. Later he designed the software program to create, sample and tweak the sort of patterns he needed to play free music.

In truth, Falesch’s metaPiano in user transparent and in his hands at least could certainly pass for the real thing. Here the perpetual motion keyboard machine easily matches the aviary crowing, prolonged reed trills, trenchant growls and split second flutter tonguing Wright uses for note delivery. Other times as the saxophonist makes a solo out of single-note slap tonguing and sonorous vibratos, the pianist responds with left-handed palm clusters on one side of the box and right-handed finger tinkles on the other, eventually smashing out intense chords as Wright harshly probes the stratosphere. If phase shifting exists, conceivably what Wright does can be described as pitch shifting.

Perhaps it’s the presence of Falesch, or maybe a grudging acceptance of the non-unconventional that Wright has developed over the years, but there are even points when some tunes here appear to be dispassionate and almost sylvan. Certainly his customary harsh tone seems to be upholstered with tranquility. By the same token he can’t let this long-lined sensitivity go too far and can’t stop himself burlesquing what has gone before with some claxon-like kazoo resonances at the end.

Anyone needing proof that hinterland free improv is alive and thriving in the Internet age need look no farther than these discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Peabody: 1. Before The Fall+*~ 2. Night of the Krell+%# 3. Klatu@^ 4. Homeless+

Personnel: Peabody: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet+, alto saxophone%, tenor saxophone@, voice); Jack Wright (alto and tenor saxophones)*; Jerry Lim (guitar)^; Sean Meehan (percussion)#; Ian Nagoski (electronics)~; Michael Johnsen (self-built electronics, musical saw, soprano saxophone)#; James Coleman (theremin)^

Track Listing: Clang: 1. Hard won 2. Clang 1 3. Bee in your Boppet 4. Prelude and Fluke 5. a Quarter-tone past the outstretched Muscle* 6. 2nd School in Vienna 7. Metamorphosis of a Pun 8. Clang 2

Personnel: Clang: Jack Wright (alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones, piano*); Bob Falesch (metaPiano, piano*)